BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi President Barham Salih refused on Thursday to designate the nominee of an Iran-backed parliamentary bloc for prime minister, saying he would rather resign than appoint someone to the position who would be rejected by protesters.
The Bina bloc, led by Iran-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, had nominated Basra Governor Asaad al-Edani to be the next prime minister following weeks of political deadlock.
But Salih said in a statement that appointing Edani would not placate protesters demanding an independent prime minister with no party affiliation or help calm the unrest that has rocked the country.
He said that because the constitution does not give him the right to reject nominees for the premiership, he was ready to quit.
“Out of my desire to stop blood and maintain peace, and with due respect to Asaad al-Edani, I refuse to nominate him,” Salih said. “Therefore I put my willingness to resign the post of president to members of parliament so that they decide as representatives of the people what they see fit.”
Salih’s resignation may only complicate the deadlock, as lawmakers must first choose a replacement for him, and that person must then nominate a premier. According to the constitution, the speaker of parliament will first resume the presidency on an interim basis.
Mass protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1 and the mostly young protesters are demanding an overhaul of a system they see as profoundly corrupt and as keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned last month as the protests continued but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
Sources in Salih’s office said the president left Baghdad on Thursday for his hometown of Sulaimaniya in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq and that he would deliver a televised speech later.
Infighting between political parties clinging to power has fuelled the crisis and threatens to cause more unrest as protesters lose patience over the deadlock.
Two political blocs - Bina, backed by Iran, and Islah, led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - are closely involved in backroom deals to agree on a candidate.
Any agreement on thorny political issues looks unlikely. The protests have shaken the country out of two years of relative calm following the defeat of Islamic State insurgents.
“The president has found himself between the rock of the pro-Iran parties and the hard place of the people, but he chose to side with the protesters,” said political analyst Ahmed Younis.
“By saying he is ready to resign he is responding to pressure from Iran and its allies, saying he would rather quit than be a scapegoat. He pulled the rug from under the pro-Iran parties and chose to stand with the protesters.”
Parliament approved a new electoral law on Tuesday, a key demand of protesters aimed at making elections fairer, but the political logjam threatens more unrest.
The protesters are also demanding an independent premier with no party affiliation and the removal of a ruling elite seen as enriching itself off the state and serving foreign powers — above all Iran — while many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, healthcare or education.
Since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, power has been shared along ethno-sectarian lines among parties from Iraq’s three largest communities.
The most powerful post, that of prime minister, is held by a Shi’ite Arab, the speaker of parliament by a Sunni Arab, and the presidency by a Kurd.
Pro-Iran factions saw Salih as shirking his duties and Bina lawmakers said it was grounds for impeachment.
“There are American pressures on President Barham Salih to prevent him from nominating the majority bloc nominee Edani,” said Bina lawmaker Hamid al-Moussawi.
“The president threatening to resign is a dereliction of his constitutional duty and a dangerous step... Barham admitted he was violating the constitution, which gives us the right to hold him accountable in parliament and dismiss him.”
The United States and Iran - themselves longtime adversaries - are Iraq’s two main allies. Protesters say the political elite are all loyal to foreign powers, chiefly Tehran and Washington, above the interests of everyday Iraqis.
Lawmakers from the party of Sadr, who presents himself as a nationalist, hailed Salih’s decision and promised to back him.
“We are against any pressure on the president and stand with him. We will not accept his resignation,” said Sadrist lawmaker Sabah al-Uqaili.
Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Hugh Lawson